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Serbia: EU Green Light Would Secure Wobbly Government

If Brussels gives Belgrade go ahead for EU talks, it will bolster the government's prestige and disarm much of the opposition.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The growing possibility that Serbia and Montenegro will get a green light to start the European accession process will prove a powerful stabilising force on the minority government of Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica.

At meeting in Brussels on March 21 with Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Oli Rehn, indicated Brussels favoured Serbia and Montenegro's future integration into the European Union, EU.

Rehn said the feasibility study for Serbia and Montenegro's eventual accession will be finished by the end of this month and submitted to the European Commission on April 12.

If the answer is positive, Serbia and Montenegro will be able to start negotations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, which is the first step towards accession.

At the same time, Rehn reminded Belgrade that it has to meet one more condition before obtaining a positive answer. This involves delivering police general Sreten Lukic and former army chief of staff Nebojsa Pavkovic to The Hague by a March 31 deadline.

Pavkovic is wanted by the Hague tribunal in connection with his command of Serbian forces in Kosovo during the 1998-9 conflict.

The Serbs have been told that without these arrests, the feasibility study will not be favourable to Serbia and Montenegro.

Analysts believe the government is likely to honour this demand by handing over Pavkovic and Lukic by the end of March, as Kostunica's cabinet will not want to ditch the chances of obtaining a positive feasibility study.

This was confirmed by Kostunica himself who told IWPR he did not intend to miss the goal of European integration. "There will have been more important progress" before the March 31 deadline, he said, referring to Brussels' demands. He added, "I think things will be solved and we'll meet this prerequisite."

Kostunica's remarks confirm the marked change from his well-known former reluctance to cooperate with the tribunal. Until recently, his plans for Hague indictees to voluntarily surrender had been slow to bear fruit.

This was why Serbia received a negative verdict from the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, in her report last November to the UN Security Council. Serbia and Montenegro, she said, had failed to cooperate sufficiently.

As a consequence, Serbia's hopes of future European integration were put on ice, as cooperation with the tribunal is a crucial precondition.

Faced with increasing international pressure and pressure from within the government, however, Kostunica then stepped up his efforts to persuade indictees to give themselves up.

Since last autumn, nine Serbs and Bosnian Serbs have left voluntarily for The Hague and last weekend, Vinko Pandurevic, who commanded Bosnian Serb troops around the Bosniak enclave of Srebrenica in the Bosnian war, gave himself up.

A green light for a feasibility study would strengthen Kostunica's government and probably ensure it survived for the rest of this year. When it was first formed last March, most analysts predicted that it would not last more than a few months.

After persuading so many fugitives to surrender voluntarily, Kostunica has deflected international community pressure on his government over The Hague. At the same time, he has escaped the dilemma of unpopular extraditions damaging his political standing at home.

Despite his government's low ratings in the polls, he has also evaded facing any no-confidence votes in parliament from the opposition nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, or from Tadic's pro-Western Democratic Party, DS.

Owing to their strong mutual animosity, these two parties have failed to combine in order to topple the government.

"The government's fate is unlikely to be sealed by joint or simultaneous no-confidence votes in parliament by the Democrats and the Radicals," said Zoran Stojiljkovic, an analyst from the Belgrade University School of Political Sciences.

One reason why the DS and the SRS have not been able to unite against the government is that Kostunica's party is closer to each of them than either of the two parties is to the other.

Analysts see the DS and SRS as natural enemies, positioned at opposing ends of the political spectrum, whose mutual antipathy serves the interests of Kostunica's minority government.

"Minority governments can last for a long time if their opponents are bitterly divided," said Stojkovic.

Djordje Vukadinovic, editor of the magazine Nova Srpska Politicka Misao (New Serbian Political Thought), agrees.

"The DS and SRS appear more convincing in public when they attack each other than when they are being tough on the government," he told IWPR.

Kostunica has also survived in office because he has prevented internal conflicts from breaking out between the four parties in the coalition.

In addition to his Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, the government unites the monarchist Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, the rightist New Serbia and the reformist, pro-Western G17 Plus.

When it was formed, the government additionally relied on parliamentary support from the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, whose leader, Slobodan Milosevic, is being tried in The Hague.

The need to accept support from the Socialists and the fact that the government initially failed to do much about the economy dented Kostunica's ratings.

Since then, however, Kostunica has managed to turn things around, by persuading indictees to surrender voluntarily to the Hague tribunal.

Although he has not improved the economy, hopes are high that a positive EU feasibility study would boost the prospects of the country.

"In this way, an escalating confrontation with Brussels and Washington has been avoided while some national dignity was preserved," Vukadinovic told IWPR.

If the government can get the EU integration process underway, it will be able to parry the blows of the DS, whose leader, Tadic, has accused Kostunica of making too little progress on the path to Europe.

Some analysts even say the start of this process might lead to a rapprochement between the two politicians.

Paradoxically, the drop in the popularity of the coalition parties is another factor stabilising the government.

Now that public confidence in the government hovers below the 20-per-cent level, the ruling parties all fear another election in case they fail to meet the five-per-cent threshold they need to take seats in the assembly. This also applies to the Socialists, supporting the government from the outside.

Zoran Lutovac, a political analyst and member of the DS, says this anxiety helps to keep the government afloat, even though the parties are not united in terms of their platforms or goals. "What keeps them together is fear of early parliamentary elections," he told IWPR.

This fear has strengthened internal cohesion to such an extent that when the SPO leader, Vuk Draskovic, said he would leave the government, citing its poor cooperation with the UN court, 15 of his own deputies decided to oppose their own party leadership and remain loyal to the premier. The dispute continues to embroil the party in internal conflicts.

Some analysts, naturally, believe this halcyon period for Kostunica's government cannot last. Lutovac says a positive feasibility study would only mark a small step in the right direction and that the government has yet to resolve numerous other burning issues, including Kosovo and relations with Montenegro.

Kostunica is optimistic, however, that a positive EU feasibility study will open up new possibilities for his government. "[It] will get many things started," he told IWPR.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in- chief of the Belgrade weekly Evropa.

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